Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review: The Spy and the Traitor

The Spy and The Traitor is a historical account of the double agent Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky was a spy for the UK MI6 during a critical period, just as Mikhail Gorbachev had become the leader of the USSR. Since he was perfectly placed as chief of political intelligence in the London Bureau, MI6 was in a unique position to choreograph and brief both sides (Thatcher on the home front) of the discussion during their talks.

The book is remarkable both in terms of narrative and tension. It's usefully describes Gordievsky's position, how the KGB worked, and how MI6 worked. It included interviews with his second wife (and quotes from the first wife that were on record), and describes what it takes to be a spy: nerves of steel and an ability to hang on to his druthers despite being drugged by a truth serum and under KGB interrogation. This is much better than any James Bond novel (or even any of John Le Carre's that I've read)

The novel is an intense page turner, and I found myself reading it in exclusion to all else. It's a great book and well worth your time. You probably shouldn't even visit the Wikipedia page I linked to for Gordievsky before reading the book. That's how good it is.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: Pacific - Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs...

Pacific (with ginormously long subtitle) is Simon Winchester's history of the Pacific from 1950 onwards. It's a tour de force with surprisingly interesting insights and history, and well worth your time.

The book starts with the use of Bikini and various other islands for atomic bomb testing. This stuff will have you angry and (if you're liberal) you might understand why many Americans have an inherent distrust of government:
had the islanders been Caucasians, then official inquiries would have been instantly convened, congressional committees would have been revved into high gear, presidential apologies offered, compensation packages showered like rain. But these were not Caucasians—they were mere Marshallese people, colored natives, members of a subject citizenry, a population now to be firmly contained and kept simply fed, watered, and, above all, docile. So there was never to be any inquiry of substance or value. The victims had worth not as members of any society, but as specimens—of importance principally to science. They might as well have been cadavers handed over to anatomists. They might as well have been branded with the term used by Japanese in their notorious human vivisection experiments—their human victims they called maruta, “logs of wood,” a deliberately dehumanizing description, given to lessen the crime. These innocents from Rongelap were America’s maruta, people rendered up as logs of wood. They were to become no more than the accidental subjects, serendipitously offered up to a group of faraway radiation scientists, of a detached, unemotional, and top-secret clinical study, a project of supposed significance for all in the ever more radioactive postnuclear world. And for a while it seemed this project would remain top secret—except that an army corporal named Don Whitaker glimpsed a group of the evidently very sick islanders in their hastily built camp on Kwajalein and wrote to tell his relatives in Cincinnati, who were sufficiently horrified by his letter to pass it to the local paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer. (Kind Loc 1507)
Then there's the history of North Korea, and how Korea came to be divided in half. (The history of how that line was divided will surprise you!) There's a brief history of Australia, and how it resisted immigration from brown people for a long time, illustrating that America's not unique:
 The Labour Party, purportedly the champion of the working man, turned out to be the most vocal in keeping Australia as pure as pure could be. “Two Wongs don’t make a White,” said a Labour Party immigration minister in 1947. Under the strictly enforced rules, no madmen could come in, no one afflicted by an illness “of loathsome or dangerous character,” no prostitutes, no criminals; nor could any “Asiatics” or any “coloureds” enter, either; and for good measure, no one who failed a written dictation test, an examination that could be given to an unwary applicant at a moment’s notice, and in the language (not necessarily English) of the immigration officer’s spontaneous choice. Sometimes the officer would, for his own amusement, choose to have his applicant write out the test in Gaelic, to be quite certain of a ban. (Kindle Loc 4559)
There's a history of the Sony corporation, and how it came to develop the transistor radio. It's a great history and well worth your time. I'd encourage you to read it. And finally, the book ends with a celebration of the return of traditional Polynesian sea navigation skills, and how the American Bi-Centennial celebration actually helped preserve that dying skill.

The book covers an amazing range of topics (some of which, like the history of surfing, I haven't even touched on in this review), in an amazingly short space, none of which felt like padding, all of which was interesting and well written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you're from any of the Pacific-rim states, and if you have any amount of curiosity at all. It's easily available from the local library, being more than a few years old, and I will go looking for more Simon Winchester books to read and review!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Review: Biology - The Science of Life

Biology was one of those gaps in my education, so I decided to bite the bullet and listen to the Great Courses offering: The Science of Life. At 72 30 minute lectures, this was a 36 hour listen and took more than a month.

Prof. Nowicki chose to organize the class in 3 themes: information processing, development, and resource processing, dividing the course into 3 equal segments. Within each segment, he would operate in increasing hierarchy of scales: from molecules to cells to organs, individual animals, species, and eventually at the ecological or planetary scale. This was a great organizing principle, since if you got lost in what he was talking about, you could at least slot it into place in the overall architecture of the course.

This course is comprehensive, starting from an examination of DNA/RNA and its discovery. (Including a description of the central dogma, which turns out to be a framework rather than a dogma). This part of the course was familiar with it, and put me in a state of complacency.

The development part was much harder, and I got lost in several sections as to how cells become what they are. By the time we got to resource processing I was overwhelmed with the description of ATP and the various energy cycles and controlled energy release that occurs in cell.

However, in all cases, Nowicki was a great lecturer, with strong enunciation and a willingness to explain how the pieces fit in together. I'm glad I paid money for the lecture series, as it did take far more than the 3 week library checkout period to get through it, and it's plausible that I might want to come back to it in the future.

Recommended.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Review: Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link Wi-Fi Enabled Air Purifier

Recently my wife complained that one room in the house was particularly cold. I got out the ancient dish heater, rated at 1000W, and it solved the problem but she complained that the heater was noisy unless it was turned up all the way to the max.

The Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link was on sale and received raved reviews, so we ordered one to try. The item was fairly big and heavy, and came with a remote. Unfortunately, the remote doesn't even have all the functionality required to operate the device: you have to pair it with the app to be able to manually change the fan speed.

The device turns out to have a maximum power consumption of 2100W, but it didn't feel that way. The dish heaters heat intensely in a small area, so they feel warmer than the diffused Dyson. If you turned up the fan, it got noisier, but the amount of heating diffused throughout the room meant that it warmed up slower. It's nice that it rotates and also purifies the air, but air purifiers cost much less than $450, so it wasn't worth it to keep it just for the air purifier.

We ended up returning this and sticking to the older style dish heater.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Review: Amazon Photos

I have a storage array at home that stores 1.8TB of photos. The edited photos go up on Google Photos and Facebook Photos (at the free tier resolutions), but the RAW files have been staying at home, and started getting nervous about off-site backups. I was getting all ready to pay up for SmugMug, but one day Amazon helpfully reminded me that unlimited photo storage (at full native RAW resolution) came along with Amazon Prime, which we were paying for anyway!

I proceeded to download the native Windows app, installed it, and pointed it at all the folders (including some network folders) and it started uploading at my full comcast speed of about 150GB/day. Note that Comcast will give you 2 free months of overage over 1TB, so if you're going to do this, make sure you start at the 1st of a month.

To give you an idea of what it would cost on rival services, Google would charge $10/month for 2TB ($120 per year), and Smugmug would charge $35/year. But seriously? I'm not going to point someone viewing my photos at a site that's starting with smugmug! Since we have a FireTV Cube, we can now see our photos on the big 4K display by talking to Alexa.

To be honest, I'd been looking at cancelling our Prime subscription. Since the kids have pretty much outgrown diapers (for a while the savings from Amazon mom on diapers more than covered the cost of a Prime subscription), 2 day delivery never seemed worth $120/year. But take $40 off that (and for the kids shows that they watch), now Amazon Prime starts to look like a decent deal again.

In any case, if you're an Amazon  Prime member and need off-site photo storage, you might as well use it!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Marvel Comics - The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is the history of Marvel, the company from inception to its acquisition by Disney. I was a Marvel shareholder during the brief period of time when it was public but before it was acquired by Disney, and maybe if I'd read this book I wouldn't have been a shareholder.

More than anything else, the book reads a lot like a biography of Stan Lee, who was in many ways the front-man for Marvel during the silver age of comics. Bombastic and with a talent for self-promotion, Stan claimed at least partial credit for many of the characters we see around the world today: Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron-Man and the Avengers. He certainly had the writers-credit billing for most of that period, but the book does a good job of explaining that he mostly filled in the dialog balloons and captions after the artists had pretty much drawn the stories, so to a large extent, while he might have had detailed plotting discussions with the artists, he wasn't actually responsible for the detailed exposition of plot or character. This is why when Alan Moore showed up with his full scripts, it was a much more radical reimagining of what comic books could be.

I learned many things from this book, including a ton of back-biting and in-fighting amongst the Marvel employees over creators rights and credit sharing. I also had this realization that many of the comic book stories were written by very young writers, certainly, many of them never even made it to college, and overseen by Stan Lee, who himself was in his 40s during the silver age.

It was quite apparent by the 1980s that Stan Lee was more interested in breaking into the movies than staying interested in comics. Because of the book's focus on Marvel rather than DC, the British Invasion (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, etc) is largely missing from the book.

All in all, I thought the book was very comprehensive, but I wish there were more details. I came away with several questions, such as why did Ari Arad finally succeed in getting Spider-Man placed in Hollywood while Stan Lee continuously met with failure? How did the sale to Disney eventually happen?

But other than that I thought it was a pretty good book. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: The Plant Paradox

The Plant Paradox is written by Steven Gundry, a physician who was formerly a cardiac surgeon. It goes counter to a huge amount of conventional wisdom, but rather than provide statistical evidence or controlled double-blind studies on a large number of subjects, he provides anecdote after anecdote.

The claim of the book is that lectins (found in beans, whole grains, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, lentils, and nuts) are attempts by plants to kill the animals who eat them. So Dr. Gundry proposes a largely lectin-free diet, preferring white rice to brown rice (!!), and insists that if you must eat beans you need to pressure cook them to destroy all the lectins. He insists that legumes such as peanuts and cashews are also unhealthy, and you should stick to macadamia nuts, pecans, and walnuts instead. He recommends sweet potatoes and eggs, and only certain types of dairy products.

The claims Dr. Gundry make are fairly extensive: going on his diet would eliminate IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), lower your weight, and even cure cancer! That's when my BS detector went up. The only reason I even got through the book was that Dr. Gundry included enough information that matched up with known science (less meat in your diet is better for you, eat smaller fish so you get less exposure to mercury contamination, blue light is bad for your sleep) that I got fooled until I got to the preposterous claims that had no controlled studies to line up with them. That was when I realized that this was a crackpot diet book.

The style is also awful. The book is repetitive, and could easily be about 70% shorter.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: The Perfectionists - How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

The Perfectionists is a scientific history of precision. It's a heck of a lot of fun to read, even about stuff that you might already know about. The book starts with a description of how precision came about, and a (now familiar to most engineers) description of the difference between precision and accuracy.

It then takes off into the develop of the steam engine (the first application of precision fittings), and then works its way into the increasing precision as required in the construction of guns, then automobiles (it turns out that the mass production assembly line required way more precision than the hand-built high end cars of the Model T era) and jet-engines. The jet-engine failure mode description is nothing short of astounding, and well worth your time. I'm afraid to even summarize it because I will get the description of the book wrong.

Then we get a great exposition about both the failure and the repair of the Hubble telescope, one of the most demanding repair jobs  you can imagine. The final chapters are devoted to the construction of silicon chips (which demand nanometer accuracy) and time keeping.

Simon Winchester covered this topics in a relatively short amount time, in readable, compelling prose, and without excess verbosity or inane, irrelevant personal stories. Recommended!

Friday, January 18, 2019

First Impressions: ResMed Air Mini

A few years ago, the marketing director at ResMed and I got on the phone and I blasted them about the ResMed S10. Not only was the S10 now bigger and heavier with a non-removable humdifier, it required a 24V input, which meant that all my accessories for running it while sailing were no longer compatible. I told him that I wanted a small, lightweight machine for hiking, camping, and traveling in general. He promised that ResMed was working on something.

When Philips announced the Dreamstation Go, I thought about jumping ship, especially since it came complete with an integrated battery solution. But in the end it was still significantly heavier than the HDM Z1, and I've always had an issue with the Respironics algorithm. (ResMed's algorithm works better if you have moderate to severe apnea like mine: https://youtu.be/lzCCgNLya_g)

Last year, ResMed announced the AirMini. I was promised one to test, but it never worked out, and I found that my contact at ResMed had left. Since I still had my HDM Z1 for my summer tour, I wasn't in a hurry to replace it. In addition, in their infinite wisdom, ResMed didn't have an official battery solution for the AirMini! The reviews for the AirMini was mixed, with some people complaining about the noise. The HDM Z1, whatever its virtues is a very noisy machine, so I was wary about spending my own money on a machine that wasn't going to be a significant improvement.

Over the holidays, Lofta ran a 15% off promotion. Coupled with a 30 day money back guarantee, I jumped on it. The AirMini required a new mask, and wasn't compatible with the SwiftFX that I'd been using, though there are after-market 3-D printed solutions for that (it looks like a Chinese company has picked up the design and is now officially selling it on Amazon). When everything arrived, I unboxed it and tried on the new mask. It fit, perhaps even better than the ResMed AirMini. I'm in the habit of touring without a humidifier, so I tried it without one. The noise problem isn't a problem at all, and it's as quiet as my (now 7 year old) ResMed S9. I'm told that it's quieter if I put in the humidifier. I did wake up with a dry throat, so I guess for California conditions you need a humidifier. Unlike the HDM Z1's HMEs, the ResMed humdifier is good for 30 days, which means you only need one for a 3 week tour of the alps, but in exchange it costs more, and if you intend to use this as a full time machine, it'll cost more to run than distilled water.

The machine, mask, humidifier, and power adapter together weighs 651g, which is 110g lighter than the travel weight of the HDM Z1, HME, its power adapter, a standard hose, and my Swift FX mask. It's lighter but would by itself wouldn't justify a change, though the lighter weight of the package means that even with a heavier battery (the Pilot-24), the AirMini is still lighter than the HDM Z1 for backcountry camping purposes. .The HDM Z1 comes with a 30W power adapter, while the AirMini comes with a 20W power adapter. Unless you have your pressure settings turned all the way up, your power draw is likely a fraction of what either power adapters can put out, so if you're good at power hacking you might be able to somehow get a lighter weight adapter that puts out less power. The HDM Z1 battery, for instance, is only 45Wh, while a standard Pilot-24 Lite has 90Wh. (HDM Z1 now sells an extended battery with 99Wh capacity). Either machine weighs in significantly less than the advertised weight (844g) of the Dreamstation Go (sans power cord, mask, or humidifier!). (All my measured weights are available in an Excel Spreadsheet)

The app is great, and walks you through setting up the machine, and detecting leaks. I'm mostly impressed by how nice the mask is. My intention was to keep the S9 as a machine for home and sailing use, but I'm now reconsidering since it'll be so nice to keep the weight down even for sailing trips. I've ordered a 3rd party battery for the AirMini, and will review it when I've used it on a camping/sailing trip. My guess is since I'm stuck with tossing out a humidifier after 30 days whether I use it or not, I'll use my AirMini for at least 30 days after every camping trip.

In the mean time, if you're worried about noise for the ResMed AirMini, don't be. It's much better than the HDM Z1, and I'll be selling my HDM Z1 in favor of this.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: Astounding: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

I make no apologies that science fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. While mainstream fiction is about people, science fiction is about how technology changes people, and well written fiction frequently tells us how to live with the constantly changing technological landscape we deal with.

Astounding is more than anything else, a biography of John W Campbell, Jr, who through his magazine Astounding (which he later renamed to Analog) shaped science fiction from the 1930s to the 1970s. Because Campbell's true legacy wasn't just the stories in the magazine he edited, but the writers he worked with, the book had to cover Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard as well.

There's lots of stuff in here that I didn't know before, and of course any biography of Hubbard, for instance, had to cover his founding of the Church of Scientology as well. (The book does debunk the story that Hubbard's writing of "Dianetics" was a competition with Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land") All the famous stories are covered, as well as the nurturing of talents such as Asimov and Robert Silverberg. If you're a fan of science fiction, you're going to recognize name after name and titles of story after story in the book, simply because Campbell was so central to the selection and writing to those stories. Campbell viewed himself as a manager of writers, doling out plots and stories to writers so that they would create the stories he envisioned, but in the writers' own style. That's why, for instance, the original Foundation trilogy are so different from the ones that Asimov wrote in the 1980s, after he had passed out of Campbell's orbit.

The book doesn't adopt a worshipful tone of either the illustrious editor or his writers. For instance, Campbell was a rascist and in his later years, dabbled in scientology, crack pot science (investing in various perpetual-machine-type scams) and tried hard to push study of psionics as a serious endeavor. Asimov, as many women friends and acquaintances had told me, would be classified as a serial sexual harassment perpetrator today. (The same has been said of the late Gardner Dozois, who passed away recently) Since I was never very active in science fiction fandom, I knew most of these people through their work, and it's definitely true that their work rarely feature women scientists.

This was a long book, taking me weeks to read, and if it was a novel, I would be complaining that the story drags on and on. (Not being a fan of Hubbard's work, I was unhappy with how much time the book spent on Hubbard, though it's interesting to how one goes about setting up a multi-billion-dollar religion that generates huge revenues --- religion truly is the best legal scam!)

I can recommend this book to every science fiction fan. It's truly an impressive work of history, and well worth your time. But if you don't know who Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, or Silverberg are, then you're better off reading their stories first. Their work is much more interesting than their lives, and continues to inspire the many technological artifacts that you use in daily life around you.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Long Term Report: Fenix 5X

Since I acquired my Fenix 5X, I've taking it on a sailing trip, and finally used it for navigation on a family hike. The device with its sapphire glass is still pristine looking, and I've subjected it to more abuse than most.

During my sailing trip, I tried to use it to find out where I'd dropped my camera. Only then did I realized I should have learned the use of the device better: I could set a marker and use "return to start", but "return to start" had two options, and one of them would try to reproduce the course, which wasn't what you want on the water. You wanted a beeline. So read the manual before trying to use it in anger.

For navigation, surprisingly enough, Garmin Connect is actually a decent website for generating a navigation course and then sync'ing to the Fenix. I like it better than RideWithGPS or Komoot, which was a surprise. Much of it is because neither of those do a good job of sync'ing with the Garmin. Unfortunately, none of these apps as yet have a reasonable mobile version, so it's desktop app only.

As with other Garmin devices, the full array of activities supported is nothing short of astounding: paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking are all the tip of the ice berg. Club riding season will soon be upon us and I'll provide a full report on how that works going forward. And of course, nothing beats real world experience when touring, so look for a report on that. In the mean time, the device is still highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: The City That Never Sleeps (PS4 Pro)

The City That Never Sleeps is an expansion to the Spider-man video game on the PS4. Most DLC are not a good deal compared to the main game, and clocking in at $25 retail, this one is not an exception. Worse, they are designed for the most enthusiastic player of the video game: the person who's mastered all the systems, finished the main game, and wants more, so the difficulty level gets ramped up.

This DLC meets all the above criteria, but since it came with my PS4 Pro, and I did platinum the original Spider-man game, I decided to play it. The way you activate the DLC is odd. You go into the in-game menu, and then switch campaigns and pick which of the 3 DLC parts you wish to play. This turns off all the other campaigns, and is one of those cases where the game's commercial nature conflicts with the game design: since the 3 parts of the DLC were clearly meant to be played in order, Sony/Insomniac should have just sold it as one DLC and then merged them all together! This would have solved many of the problems with the DLC, which is that the main story map was designed for a very busy game, where you could pick off many sub-goals on your way to the main objective, while separating each section of the DLC left you with an empty map with nothing to do between main objectives except to swing around and hope for a randomly generated encounter.

My worst fears were confirmed in the first DLC, where a chase sequence required much better button mashing than I expected. I actually left the game for a while and played other stuff, but after a few patches either the game designers made the sequences easier or I got better at the game by sleeping, and I made it through. The side missions were much too hard, however, so I abandoned any attempts at doing them and just bee-lined my way through the main mission DLC content. The main mission was much easier, and had a decent story, which is that of Hammerhead attempting to take over the city in the aftermath of the original video game.

The game is mostly fun, though as I expected, the combat missions got tougher and tougher, eventually making it so that I couldn't get through any encounter without dying multiple times. To be honest I have no idea whether my skills improved or whether I just replayed the encounter(s) enough times to get through by dumb luck. The final boss fight finally introduced new mechanics which were intriguing and fun enough, though again, I died multiple times but at least the checkpointing was generous enough that I finally "beat" the game.

Would I have paid $25 for it? No way. The content is worth $10 at most, but the most important thing that David desJardins convince me of is that video games, books, and movies should be evaluated as "worth the time spent" rather than monetary value, and in that sense the DLC offered quite a bit of fun in exchange for your time. It's flawed, but maybe Sony/Insomniac will release a "definitive edition" of the video game that has all the DLC integrated (and turn The City That Never Sleeps into a side mission like the Tombstone side mission in the main game), which will alleviate many of the issues in the video game's design. Or you can wait and pick it up for cheap on a sale.

Recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Review: Envy Apples from Costco

I'll admit that when I first saw the "envy apples" demo cart at Costco I was very skeptical. I've tried all sorts of Apples over the years, and basically, only the Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Fuji Apples are up to par. From Costco, I think only the Fuji were worth the money. The expensive Honeycrisp apples, for instance, tasted like crap.

The Envy apples, however, blew me away. One bite just sent me into heaven. There's a hint of honey and everything else about the Fuji which I loved. It's crispy and yummy. I  bought a dozen and took it home. When Bowen tasted one, he couldn't stop eating and I think we went through 2 apples in one sitting.

Highly recommended. If you see it at Costco, get a box. You'll be impressed.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Review: Why We Sleep

I picked up Why We Sleep thinking that this might be one of those "stupid pill" books for me. After all, not only am I a sleep apnea victim, I'm one of those lucky people who've slept quite well all his life. My CPAP therapy has made it such that I only really need slightly less than 7 hours of sleep a night, and I've never needed an alarm clock! I also read The Promise of Sleep, written by the pioneer of sleep studies.

But wow, what a difference 9 years makes. Sleep science has advanced quite a bit, and a lot of my knowledge was obsolete. For instance, Dement's book mentioned that you shouldn't be afraid of sleeping pills. We now know that sleeping pills just sedate you, and don't actually generate sleep of the natural kind. There's also better therapies available for insomnia now, chiefest of which is CBT-I Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia. Wow.

There are way more practical tips in this book on how to get better sleep. In particular, setting a bedroom temperature lower is counter-intuitive:
 The need to dump heat from our extremities is also the reason that you may occasionally stick your hands and feet out from underneath the bedcovers at night due to your core becoming too hot, usually without your knowing. Should you have children, you’ve probably seen the same phenomenon when you check in on them late at night: arms and legs dangling out of the bed in amusing (and endearing) ways, so different from the neatly positioned limbs you placed beneath the sheets upon first tucking them into bed. The limb rebellion aids in keeping the body core cool, allowing it to fall and stay asleep. (Pg. 276)
Yup. Please show this to your Asian mom who keeps tucking you back into your blanket after you've fallen asleep. While you're at it, you might want to get her to lower the nightime thermostat:
A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C) is ideal for the sleep of most people, assuming standard bedding and clothing. This surprises many, as it sounds just a little too cold for comfort... (Pg. 277)
Another tip is to take a hot bath just before bed. I've had doctors advise me to take a hot shower before bed before, to wash away pollen and other allergens so I don't introduce them into bed. But the reason for how the hot bath works is counter-intuitive:
A luxury for many is to draw a hot bath in the evening and soak the body before bedtime. We feel it helps us fall asleep more quickly, which it can, but for the opposite reason most people imagine. You do not fall asleep faster because you are toasty and warm to the core. Instead, the hot bath invites blood to the surface of your skin, giving you that flushed appearance. When you get out of the bath, those dilated blood vessels on the surface quickly help radiate out inner heat, and your core body temperature plummets. Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10 to 15 percent more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults. (Pg. 279)
This is amazing stuff. Prof Walker also debunks several past theories about why sleep evolved biologically:
 Sleep, it turns out, is an intensely metabolically active state for brain and body alike. For this reason, theories proposing that we sleep to conserve large amounts of energy are no longer entertained. The paltry caloric savings are insufficient to outweigh the survival dangers and disadvantages associated with falling asleep. (Pg. 175)
We also now know that sleep-deprivation is its own form of Dunning-Kruger: Sleep deprived individuals perform worse, but don't know that they perform worse, so don't know that they're sleep deprived, which encourages them to think that they don't need to sleep more!
With chronic sleep restriction over months or years, an individual will actually acclimate to their impaired performance, lower alertness, and reduced energy levels. That low-level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognize how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health. (Pg. 137)
All in all, this is an amazingly good book, and well worth your time. Highly recommended!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: Endure

Most of my favorite activities can be classified as endurance sports: cycling, hiking, swimming/snorkeling, and (recently) stand up paddle boarding). I picked up Endure thinking that it would give me insights as to how improvement in those sports could work. Alas, the book's mostly about running, which is one of those sports I'm not super-interested in.

All through the book are interspersed chapters on the attempt by Nike's tech people to engineer a sub-2 hour marathon by deploying groups of runners so the primary runner can draft, and providing a super-shoe.
British researchers found that skipping breakfast resulted in a 4.5 percent drop in 30-minute cycling time trial performance at 5 p.m. that afternoon, even though the subjects had been allowed to eat as much as they wanted at lunch. (Page 180)
So don't skip breakfasts. That's great. Another intriguing section of the book discusses an attempt to switch people into high fat diets with extremely low carbohydrates so that for multi-day endurance events, you don't have to carry so much food. Apparently, not all weight loss after a long event like a marathon is water loss!
Part of the explanation, according to University of Cape Town researcher Nicholas Tam, is that not all the weight you lose is water. During prolonged exercise, “you will use fat, and you will use carbohydrate,” he explains, “and once you’ve burned it up, it’s not there anymore.” The chemical reactions involved in burning fat and carbohydrate produce two key by-products: carbon dioxide, which you breathe out, and water—which actually adds to the amount of fluid available in your body. Even more significant, your body stores carbohydrate in your muscles in a form that locks away about three grams of water for every gram of carbohydrate. This water isn’t available to contribute to essential cellular processes until you start unlocking the carbohydrate stores, so your body sees it as “new” water when it’s released during exercise. For decades, these factors were assumed to be insignificantly small. But in 2007, British scientists at the University of Loughborough estimated that a marathoner could conceivably lose 1 to 3 percent of his or her body mass without any net loss of water. (Pg. 171)
 Another tidbit discusses how even at 1900', you get significant performance loss from reduced oxygen. But other than these 3 tidbits, the rest of the book was about the relationship between pain and endurance sports, and how brain training can improve performance (but there's no free lunch, that brain training also takes time, and you can't skimp on your marathon training because of your brain training). There's nothing about technique (though there's one about freediving, but nowhere close to the coverage we got in Deep), very little about injury prevention (not even the discussion of the barefoot running stuff that became popular a few years ago), and nothing about the joy of motion.

I also wanted answers to questions like: "Why do cyclists ride at 90rpm on flat ground, but it feels easier to ride at lower rpms on serious/long climbs?" None of that was addressed here.

The book wasn't a complete waste of time, but it came pretty close. I wouldn't recommend it though.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Review: Army of None

Army of None is a book about Autonomous Weapons and how the AI revolution could potentially play out for war fighting. The scope of the book is huge, ranging from the history of automatic weapons to the ethics behind the rules of warfare and an exploration of where automation is used in the wild to varying results.

The book is written by a former Army ranger, and so it goes into tedious details about stuff you may or may not be interested in, such as the intricacies behind the Pentagon policies about autonomous weapons and the various treaties involved in landmines.However, he points out several issues that you may or may not have thought of:

  • AI spoofing is real, and in a situation where human life is on the line, there's no guarantee that an adversary can't make your image recognition/targeting intelligent system misidentify something.
  • The place where fully automated agents are active in the wild is on Wall Street. On Wall Street, automation-driven flash crashes are so frequent that the trading systems now have back-stops and back-offs, and they get triggered on a regular basis.
  • Highly complex systems such as nuclear reactors or highly automated weapon systems such as the Aegis Combat System are so complex that failures are "normal." To counteract such failures, the navy has developed an operation protocol around the Aegis such that the automation is always kept on a tight leash. At all times, navy personnel have their fingers on the button to turn off the system as soon as it has done its job. To a casual observer, the operators of an Aegis system exhibit no trust whatsoever as to the reliability of the system and the automation. But this protocol took more than 2 decades to develop, and before it was developed the system targeted a civilian aircraft and killed everyone on board, so this protocol was warranted.
  • By contrast, the Patriot Surface-to-Air System introduced during the Persion Gulf War demonstrated 2 cases of fraticide. Both incidents were traced to the operators having too high a trust in the automation of the system. 
  • Banning autonomous weapons won't work: history suggests that an effective weapon will be deployed as soon as it provides an advantage, and then a race to use that weapon most effectively will occur. Keeping humans in the loop when everything is moving at machine speed will cost you a war.
All in all, the book was long winded and took its time getting around to many points, but it was worth the read, pointing out interactions between systems that I didn't think of before. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Review: Math with Bad Drawings

Sometimes, I'll watch as Bowen puts down an advanced book he's been reading, and revert to reading a pre-school book more suitable to his brother. I call those moments "taking a stupid pill." It's fun to do something easy once in a while, just so you can reassure yourself that the things you knew were the things you knew.

Math with Bad Drawings is a great book to read when you're taking a stupid pill. It covers all math/statistics/probability you already know, including probability, statistics, etc. In the opening chapter he covers Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, which is a fun game that I've now taught to my wife and Bowen. That, alone was worth the cost of the book.

The drawings are pretty bad, and even worse on the kindle edition. Sometimes I didn't even bother zooming in to read the cartoons, because they're not very funny anyway. Much of the coverage is rather pedestrian, though if you haven't been reading too many science books they might not be familiar to you. There's a section on trusses that's fun, and in an obvious homage to Martin Gardner, a description of the game of life, though unfortunately, at a rather shallow level.

Would I recommend this over a Martin Gardner book? No. But if you're having a day when you took a stupid pill, this book is much more accessible than Martin Gardner, and is much more readable. Hey, how often would you find a math book I'd recommend that would make for a light airplane read? Recommended.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Review: Agent Carter Season 1

Agent Carter got stellar reviews, and came up on Woot for $8 shipped. I figured it was a low risk, and at 8 episodes, wouldn't be an excessive burn on time. I was right on both counts, but hadn't figured out the biggest issue with reviews of TV shows.

Reviewers don't watch the entire TV show in order to review a series. They watch at most a couple of episodes, and then provide that impression. Agent Carter's first couple of episodes are decent. They're decent not because of the plot (which is dumb and uninspired) or the acting (which is reasonable), but because of the image quality, set, and beautiful people involved. In addition, the writing is very feminist, illustrating all the issues with being a woman in the 1940s and 50s trying to make it in a male dominated profession.

That's great. But that's not enough to carry even a short 8-episode show. As a result, after about 4 episodes you feel like even the mediocre plot is being dragged out an d stretched far beyond what could be done, and by the end of the series you feel a complete lack of drama and tension: the fight scenes are short, nothing like the fabulous ones seen in Daredevil. I can see why even though the show was a critical darling it couldn't draw (and keep) a long term audience.

Not recommended.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Review: Complications - A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

I'd read a bunch of other Atul Gawande's books before, but I somehow missed his early book, Complications. No matter, that just means there's no wait at the library when I checked it out.

Complications reads a lot like a collection of separate magazine articles (or columns) strung together and then arranged by theme. This is by no means a bad thing: you can read each chapter separately, or skip around as you wish. I chose to read it in sequential order.

Medical stories are challenging for me to read, especially for someone who's had health scares in the past (or know friends who've been on the receiving end of medical procedures recently). The chapters in the book frequently allude to what makes doctors different: a software engineering error might cost money or time (or both), but you don't regularly kill people or cause people massive pain directly when you make a mistake. A doctor suffering from a bout of depression (as described in this book) could cause damage that no amount of malpractice insurance can cover. Worse, the medical system itself works to try to protect physicians from honest errors but can be slow to act when someone repeatedly (or even deliberately) causes harm.

The book meanders from topics such as how doctors learn, whether patients should make all the decisions regarding their care, and the nature of doctor's intuition and persuasiveness. All the chapters are worth reading (though some might make you more queasy than others) and many make you feel grateful that you're not the patient who needs to have the procedure described. Some will make you question the nature of free will and human decision making, such as the chapter on gastric bypass procedures that suddenly cause its patients to voluntarily eat less!

The book is short, a quick read, and full of great stories and occasionally, great insight. Recommended.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Review: Anker Powercore Speed

While there are many sailors who are willing to run their generators all night, I have this ethic where the goal when anchoring or mooring is to turn off the generator as quickly as possible. This time, our boat actually had new enough batteries that running the generator for 2 hours around dinner time was sufficient.

Now, 2 hours isn't nearly enough to get all the phones, cameras, electric toothbrushes, kindles, etc. charged. I had a big collection of battery banks (some were gifts, some were bought for cheap on sale), but for a sailing trip like this, what I wanted was a QC battery bank: I didn't care how slowly it put out the power, but I wanted it to charge fast when plugged into a quick charger. Strangely enough, this was a difficult feature to find.

I ended up with the Anker Powercore Speed with QC3. From empty, it would charge to 70% full within 2 hours, which kept all the electronics we brought with us fairly happy. This is an unusual case, but if you're in the market for something like this, nothing else will do. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Day 10: Great Harbor, Peter Island to Road Town, Tortola

 It rained twice the night before, waking me up and getting me to take down much of the laundry. I got up at 5:00am, ate a leisurely breakfast and made coffee, and then when the crew was up and running we raised the sail on the mooring ball and then set sail at 7:00am. It would have been a 20 minute motor, but we were determined to sail as much as we could, given that Conch would only open at 8:00am.
We said goodbye to the beautiful islands, and the sun came out and gave us a send-off, though with light winds it took us 40 minutes to get into the harbor deep enough where we took down the sails and picked up a mooring buoy. We tried hailing Conch but they weren't open and so called the oncall number and told them we were waiting.

Conch characteristically only opened up at 8:30 and got us a captain to dock us, but once we were onshore the checkout was also characteristically fast, with everything squared away (except final fuel costs etc) by 9:15am, whereupon a taxi showed up and took us to the Beef Island airport, where everything was also uncharacteristically on time. Our trip was over. However, on the plane over to San Juan we met the crew of the monohull who had sailed into White Bay the morning we were leaving, and had another chance to reminiscence about our fabulous trip. Their first mate was a 12 year old boy who was on his 3rd cruise in the BVIs with his Dad. I quietly reflected that this was Bowen's 5th sailing trip, and perhaps some day he too, could help manage the boat.